Have the Same Mind

January 22nd, 2023 homily on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 by Pastor Galen

Ravens Fan Club

I  used to do a fair amount of traveling to other parts of the U.S. when I did college campus ministry, and frequently when someone found out that I am from Baltimore, they would say, “oh, so I guess you are a Ravens fan, right?” (For anyone wondering, of course I always answer in the affirmative! Yes I am a Ravens fan).

The truth of the matter is that I really don’t watch a lot of football. It’s difficult for me to sit still for long periods of time, and I just don’t have the patience to sit in front of a TV for three hours to watch an entire football game. But I enjoy socializing with people, and I do indeed root for the Ravens, and I remember with fondness the last time the Ravens were in the Superbowl. It was so fun to be in Baltimore! It felt like the whole city was decked out in purple. (One thing I learned during that time is that wearing a Ravens jersey on a Sunday morning counts as dressing up for church!)

I think that one of the reasons that people ask which football team you root for is that they want to know: Are you a team player who roots for your home team? Or are you someone who refuses to “jump on the bandwagon” and wants to be different from everyone else? If you live in Baltimore but don’t root for the Ravens, perhaps you moved here from another city, and still root for your hometown team. Or perhaps, like my daughter Galena, you like to root for whoever has the best mascot or uniforms in any particular game.

Some people place a lot of pride in the football, or baseball, or basketball team that they root for. It becomes a part of their identity, who they are, and no matter where they live or how much other people pressure them, they refuse to switch teams. 

A Cult of Personality

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a favorite sports team that you root for, and there’s nothing wrong with loving and supporting that team until the day you die. 

The problem is that some people bring that same mindset into the church! They view religious leaders sort of like their favorite football teams. They swear their allegiance and loyalty their favorite preacher, or author, or podcaster, or religious guru. They rush out to buy that person’s latest book, they’re always quoting or retweeting the latest things that person said, and they take everything that person says at face value. Part of their identity becomes wrapped up in following that particular leader. 

Today there are whole churches, organizations and religious institutions that have been built around charismatic and dynamic leaders. People devote their whole lives to that particular leader, and seem to do whatever that leader says. This is what we might call a “cult of personality.” 

This is essentially the situation that was happening in the church at Corinth when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church had been divided up into factions, with some claiming that they followed Paul, who had started their church years prior. Others claimed to follow Apollos, who is described in the book of Acts as “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24b) and seems to have pastored the Corinthian church for some time (see 1 Cor. 3:6). Others claimed to follow Cephas (the Apostle Peter), and still others claimed to follow Jesus.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that as followers of Christ we are to give allegiance and loyalty solely to Jesus Christ! Not to the pastor who baptized us, or the denominational leader we most admire, or the Christian author or podcaster that speaks to us the most. We are to place our faith and trust in Christ alone. Pastors, religious leaders, and teachers should point us toward Christ. And although there’s nothing wrong with having a favorite author or speaker or leader, they should not be the objects of our devotion. That role is reserved only for Jesus Christ.

(This is one of the many reasons for the United Methodist Church’s practice of occasionally rotating pastors to a different congregation – particularly when it is noticed that a particular congregation could benefit from the gifts and graces of a particular pastor for that season of mission and ministry. This is different from congregations who choose their own pastors – who may still have different pastors over a series of years, but have more control over who their pastor will be. In the UMC, this series of different pastoral leaders over time helps form and develop ministries in the church and community, and helps the congregation be less tied to one particular pastoral leader – and hopefully be drawn closer to Christ.) 

We Belong to Christ

Now there were some in Paul’s day who proudly proclaimed, “I belong to Christ.” But rather than commending them, Paul reprimands them along with everyone else! Why was that, you might ask?

Because of the singular pronoun that they were using: “I”. “I belong to Christ,” as if the other members of their congregation didn’t! As if they were better than all of their other brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul was not willing to stand for any sense of division in the church — even from those who claimed to follow Christ — if in doing so they were attempting to put down their fellow believers.

The only proper way of thinking about all of this is to use the plural personal pronoun “we.” We belong to Christ. And for this, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church and to us today, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we be in agreement and that there be no divisions among us, but that we be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 10b).

“Have the same mind.” For those of you who might pride yourself in being an independent thinker, in not jumping on the bandwagon and rooting for the same team as everyone else, that might rub you the wrong way. Perhaps you like to stand apart from the crowd, to march to the beat of your own drum. But Paul wasn’t asking the Corinthians to all dress alike or think alike, or even to act just like everyone else around them. But he is asking them to put their divisions aside, to have the same mindset, to remember the reason why they were there, to be united in one mission and one purpose, and to remember that their allegiance is to Jesus Christ, above all else. It’s only through Jesus that the Corinthians could be saved, and the same is true for us as well.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

After all, as Paul points out, neither Paul, nor Apollos nor any of the other religious leaders that people follow today have not been crucified for us. Christ is the only one who died on the cross for the sins of the world. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were not baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. They were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as we are today.

As Paul says in the book of Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. This is the mindset that Paul wanted the Corinthians to have, and this is the mindset we are called to have today as well. 

We — not I, not you, but we — belong to Christ. We ultimately belong not to the individual church or denomination we’re a part of — even though we do have membership in our local church or denomination. (This is why our new membership service has been changed to say “loyal to Christ through the United Methodist Church” rather than “loyal to the United Methodist Church). We belong not to the pastor or religious leader that we love to listen to. We belong not to a favorite sports team or political party. Not to an employer or a company or a bank or educational institution. We Belong to Christ.

The “Foolishness” of the Cross

As Paul acknowledges, all of this sounds rather foolish to outsiders. To those who have never experienced Christ’s saving grace, it seems crazy to worship someone who was put to death on a cross. After all, crosses were instruments of torture and death reserved only for the lowliest of criminals. Slaves who committed crimes, rebels, and traitors were hung on crosses. Roman citizens who committed even the most heinous of crimes were not hung on crosses to die. The Romans used crosses to publicly shame and humiliate anyone who dared try to revolt against the Roman Empire. It was Rome’s way of demonstrating the power of the empire and the weakness of those who tried to revolt. 

But for Paul and for us, the cross represents the power of God. Because in submitting to death on the cross and in rising from the grave three days later, Jesus conquered sin and death and hell and the grave. Jesus went to the cross willingly, not out of weakness, but rather because of the strength of his love and commitment to us. Jesus willingly laid down his life for us and willingly endured the shame and public humiliation of death on the cross on our behalf, so that we could be made right with God, so that we could be born anew. Jesus did that for us. 

And because Jesus willingly gave his life for us by dying on the cross, we can have peace with God and with others. 

Cross-Shaped Love

You see, although the cross may seem like foolishness to the world, for those of us who have experienced Christ’s love, grace, and mercy, even the shape of the cross has special significance. The cross has both a vertical and a horizontal element. 

Vertical: The vertical beam of the cross points us upward to God, and we are reminded that in Christ, God came down to us, to reconcile us to God. The cross demonstrates God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness flowing down towards us, and because of Jesus’s death on the cross we can be made right with God.

Horizontal: The horizontal beam of the cross reminds us that the cross also reconciles us to one another. When Jesus stretched out his hands and allowed himself to be nailed to the cross, his arms were stretched out in love to welcome anyone and everyone who acknowledges Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Through the cross we are united not only to God, but to every other person on the face of this earth who claims the name of Christ, every person who looks to Jesus as the source of their hope and strength. We are united not just with each other here in our congregation, but with every believer around the world, in every church and congregation, throughout time and history. Those who lived before us, and those who will come after us. 

This is the power of the cross. This is the power that raised Jesus from the grave! This is the power of the Gospel! And this is what it means when we say that We Belong to Christ.

Amen!

Not Lacking

1.15.23 homily on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 by Pastor Galen

MacGyver

One of the best TV shows of all time (in my opinion) was the show MacGyver, whose lead character (by the same name) was played by Richard Dean Anderson in the original 1985 series. 

MacGyver possessed a genius-level knowledge of science, and an uncanny ability to solve life-threatening situations using common, everyday items such as paper clips, chewing gum, an ID card, or his trusty Swiss Army knife and the roll of duct tape, which he carried in his back pocket, flattened out to make it fit.

In the pilot episode, for example, MacGyver was called in to rescue a group of scientists trapped in an underground New Mexican laboratory after a major explosion. The explosion caused a sulfuric acid leak that put MacGyver in a rush with time before the acid would leak into the aquifer. In this situation, MacGyver’s survival techniques included using chocolate bars to plug the sulfuric acid leak (since the sugar formed a sticky paste when it reacted with the acid) and making a bomb made out of water and the sodium from a cold pill to blow a hole in a wall.

MacGyver’s ability to solve complex problems with simple, everyday household items is so iconic that the term “MacGyver” has now become part of the American English lexicon. In contrast to the tendency in our society to keep throwing more and more money and resources at problems, hoping something works, if you “MacGyver” something, it means that you have discovered a simple yet elegant solution to a problem using existing resources. (Our world could use a lot more MacGyvers – especially those who follow MacGyver’s methodology of avoiding violence, and finding non-violent solutions to problems!)

The Church in Corinth

In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in the city of Corinth, Paul tells the Corinthian Christians, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:7). In other words, the problems you’re facing may seem overwhelming, but you already have the resources you need to deal with the problems you are facing. You are not lacking – you just need to “MacGyver” the situation, using the spiritual resources you already have at your disposal. 

Now, the Christian community in Corinth was in fact dealing with a myriad of problems – many of which seemed overwhelming. The church was split over moral and ethical questions regarding some of the members’ sexual behavior. Church members were caught up in legal battles with one another, with some members suing other church members in public court. Some of the leaders and members claimed spiritual superiority over other members of the church, believing that they possessed particularly special and unique spiritual gifts that others lacked. And they couldn’t even find refuge in their regular worship gatherings, since there too there was chaos and division regarding various practices related to worship and communion. And all of these divisions were compounded by the fact that the church in Corinth was made up of people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, with varying levels of wealth and education. 

One example of this division can be seen in the ethical question of whether or not it was OK for Christians to eat meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. The Greeks and Romans worshiped a variety of gods and made statues to represent their deities. As part of their worship of these various gods they would offer food and libations to the gods – who of course could not eat the food  – and so the food would then be sold in the marketplace.

The educated members of the Church in Corinth saw the worship of these gods as mere superstition, since the gods didn’t exist, and thus they saw no problem in eating meat that had previously been offered to these idols. The less educated Christians in Corinth, on the other hand, believed that this practice was dangerous, perhaps seeing eating the meat as tantamount to worshiping the idols. 

We see divisions of this sort in the Church today – where often the fault lines fall between people of different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, people with more formal theological training are often more liberal on certain issues, whereas people with less formal theological education may often be wary of such people, believing they have strayed away from orthodox faith and doctrine.

And so even today we see how even theological divisions are compounded by economics and education.

Now, the Apostle Paul will go on to address these specific questions later on in his letter to the Corinthians. But it’s interesting to me that he doesn’t start off by listing off all of these problems, or highlighting how messed up things are in their church. That would have been the tactic taken by someone who was trying to sell something. 

Not a Sales Pitch

Normally, a salesperson begins by highlighting the problem – showing you the insufficiency of the thing you already have. Think, for example, about a paper towel commercial. It begins with the person dropping their cup of orange juice on the floor, or spilling their coffee all over the counter. Then they try to clean up the mess with the off-brand paper towels they’ve always used – which are woefully inadequate for the task at hand. But then they discover the name brand paper towels, and their problem is instantly solved! 

The message of these types of commercials is that the thing you need is not something you already have. You need to spend more money and resources in order to get the thing you really need, because it’s not already in your possession. (That’s probably why MacGyver went off the air – the show didn’t encourage people to go out and buy a lot of stuff!)

But here in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul is not trying to convince the Christians in Corinth to go out and buy a lot of stuff – or even to seek resources to fix their problems beyond the resources they already had. And so he doesn’t begin by naming the problem, but rather by pointing out the multitude of resources they already have. 

Saints, Rich in Grace

Paul refers to the Christians in Corinth as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). He reminds them of “the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4), saying that they have been “enriched in [Christ], in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:5-7). 

Paul says that they are “saints” – not with the connotation that they are perfect or without fault, but that they have been called by God, and that they had said “yes” to that invitation. And then Paul reminds them that they are each part of something bigger than themselves – they are not just members of the church in Corinth, but they are part of the global Body of Christ – the “Kin-dom,” as we’ve been calling it in this series. The “Kin-dom” is the family of God, made up of God’s children in every time and every place scattered all around the world.

And Paul says that they have received the grace of God, and that they have been “enriched in [Christ], in speech and knowledge of every kind” (1 Cor. 1:5).

This is not the way you would convince someone that they need to buy a lot of stuff, or throw a lot of money at a problem in order to fix it. Rather, Paul is encouraging them to take stock of what they already have – the spiritual resources they have already been given, to see that within their community they already have everthying they need. 

Because you see, the “you” here is not singular. Rather, it’s plural. Meaning that Paul is not saying “Bob, Susan, John, Rebecca, each of you individually have all of the spiritual resources that you will ever need.” Instead he is saying “you all” – “you’s guys” – “you’ins,” “all y’all” (depending on where you’re from) have everything you (collectively) need to solve the situations you are facing.

On a practical level, I think he was helping them to see that they didn’t need to take each other to court and have a Corinthian city official determine their legal questions. They didn’t need to turn to secular philosophers and ethicists, they didn’t even need to turn to celebrity pastors and theologians. They had the spiritual resources they needed right there in their community. 

That didn’t mean that it wasn’t helpful for them to get an outside perspective – Paul was in many ways outside their community looking in, even though he had previously lived among them and knew their situation – and he was uniquely situated to help them see things about themselves that maybe they couldn’t see for themselves. But on a spiritual level, God had already given them what they needed. They just needed to learn to work together, and to value the unique contributions of every member of their church and community – not discounting the spiritual gifts or offerings of any member of their congregation – no matter their socioeconomic background or political or theological perspective – no matter their level of formal education, or lack thereof. 

This is one reason why later on in The Book of 1 Corinthians, Paul will use the image of a body, and remind them that they are all connected to each other, and that they need each other. This is also why Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we celebrate this weekend, would said, “[We] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

We are Not Lacking

Here in our congregation, it can be easy to look around and see all of the resources that we don’t have – especially when we compare our church to much larger congregations. For me as the pastor, it’s tempting to wish I had a secretary to answer the phones or make my appointments, or maybe an associate pastor to assist with home visitation. I’m sure it could be tempting for our tech team to look at larger churches that have all the expensive equipment and lights and sound. Perhaps our singers and musicians might wish that they had a full orchestra to accompany them. And of course we could go on and on, wishing for the resources that we don’t have.

But I believe that the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthian church apply to us today as well. We need to first of all remember that God has called us – each and every one of us – to be saints, set apart for God’s holy purposes. When God looks at our congregation God doesn’t see gaps or holes or empty spaces. God sees us – the ones God has called and equipped to do God’s work. And God does  not see us as lacking or insufficient. Rather God sees us as containing an abundance of resources. We are rich in the grace given to us by Christ Jesus. And God sees us as containing all of the spiritual gifts that we need to function together as a community. We are not lacking  – together as a community, with God’s help, we have what it takes to fulfill the call that God has placed on our church.

And so, even if and when the situation may seem dire, let us remember that through Christ, God has already given us everything that we need. And so let us be MacGyvers, learning how to more effectively use the spiritual resources we have already been given. May we know that we are called by God, and equipped with what we need to do the work God has called us to do. May we faithfully respond to God’s calling on us as a church and community.

Amen.

The Water’s Fine

January 8th, 2023 homily on Matthew 3:13-17 for Baptism of the Lord Sunday by Pastor Galen

I’m sure you know the feeling. You dip your toes in the water – maybe it’s a pool, or a lake, or an ocean – and the water is freezing cold. There’s no way you’re going to put your whole body in. It’s way too cold! But then someone – in the case of our family it’s always one of my daughters – calls out “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

The water’s fine? No way! It’s frigid! You might walk in up to your ankles or calves, but there’s now way you’re getting all in. But they call out even more insistently, “No really, the water is fine! It’s cold at first, but it’s fine once you get used to it.”

You shake your head in disbelief, saying “there’s no way I’m going in there!” But you see your friend or family member splashing happily in the water, and you notice that they really do seem fine. They’re not shivering or shaking, they don’t have blue or purple lips. And so you think to yourself, “well, maybe it will be OK.” And so you timidly venture further in. Or perhaps you’re the type of person who likes to jump all in. But you eventually do go into the water, and you agree that the water really is fine. And now you’re the person calling out to the others walking timidly up to the water’s edge, “Come on in – the water’s fine!”

In the Gospel narratives, John the Baptist was the person out in the water calling out, “come on in, the water’s fine!” But he was doing more than simply encouraging them to get wet. He was calling out to them to repent of their sins, to turn away from their sinful and destructive habits and attitudes, and to turn to God in preparation for the coming of the Lord.

Some did in fact receive the invitation. And no doubt they too began to encourage others to get in the water and be baptized. Some no doubt got baptized more for appearances rather than as an indication of true repentance – and John called them out on that, challenging them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). But the experience of being baptized was transformative, and many repented of their sins and wrongdoing and were baptized.

But then Jesus comes to the water’s edge to be baptized, and John is confused. Jesus is the one they had been waiting for. Jesus was and is the promised Messiah – the Savior of the world – who John said would be much more powerful than he – so much so that John said he wasn’t even good enough to carry the sandals of the Messiah. And now, here Jesus is, coming to be baptized along with everyone else. 

John says to Jesus, “Why are you coming to be baptized by me? I should be coming to be baptized by you!”

But Jesus jumps and splashes into the water (at least in the Godspell rendition), and says, “No, we need to do this in order to fulfill all righteousness.” Or, as The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it, “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism” (Matthew 3:15 MSG). 

And so John baptizes Jesus, and “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17, NRSV).

What an amazing picture, and what an amazing affirmation of Jesus’s unique identity as God’s “only begotten Son,” as we read in the King’s James Version of John 3:16. Jesus, who was perfect and sinless, who came to take away the sins of the world, as we see throughout Scripture (c.f. 1 Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15, 2 Corinthians 5:21).

But this scene in the Gospels also raises a number of important questions, one of which is: If Jesus was sinless, as the Bible tells us, then why did he need to be baptized? Why did he undergo John’s baptism of repentance, if Jesus had no sins to repent from?

Think about it. Everyone else who was coming to the water to be baptized that day had sinned. Even John – who was doing the baptizing – was not perfect. For the people coming to be baptized, the water cleansing their body was symbolic of the spiritual cleansing that they needed – forgiveness from God for their wrongdoing – both the wrongs they had done, and for the good things they had failed to do. Being baptized in the water did not mean that they would never sin again – but it was a means by which God was extending grace to them, and it was a powerful symbol and reminder to them of the grace and forgiveness God extends to each of us, despite all of the ways that we have fallen short of what God calls us to do.

So why then was Jesus baptized?

Well, perhaps Jesus’s baptism was not about repenting – or “turning” – away from anything, but rather turning towards something – in this case, his mission and purpose and calling. In going down into the water to be baptized, Jesus was identifying with the people of Israel, who had passed through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to the promised land after having been delivered from slavery in Egypt. In being baptized in the waters of the Jordan river, he was identifying even with outsiders such as the Assyrian commander Naaman, who had been instructed to dip into the waters of the muddy Jordan River in order to be cleansed of his leprosy. And in going down into the water, perhaps he was even identifying with the likes of the prophet Jonah, who sank beneath the waters until he was rescued by a whale when he was running away from his calling to go and preach salvation and repentance to the people of Nineveh.

In 2 Corinthians verses 17 and following, the Apostle Paul tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:17-20).

And then the Apostle Paul says, “For our sake God made the one who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

So, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan river that day was in many ways a foreshadowing of what would come. Even though Jesus was perfect and sinless, he would be in many ways treated as a sinner throughout his life – criticized by the religious leaders, and eventually hung on a cross to be crucified as if he were a criminal. Jesus was a spotless, sacrificial lamb – who took the punishment that we deserved. And in taking our place, he makes it possible for us to be in right relationship with God.

And so, in going down into the waters to be baptized, Jesus was identifying with us, as people who have fallen short. This was all part of God’s redemptive plan to save the world through Jesus Christ. In going down in the waters to be baptized, Jesus was signifying that he would fulfill and complete the mission that God had originally given to the people of Israel – a task they often lost sight of and failed to do – that is, to be a light to the nations, to point the world to God’s love and saving grace. 

In humbling himself, and being baptized by John, in the company of so much others, Jesus was demonstrating the fact that, although he was and is the Savior of the world, and the mission and purpose to which he was called was indeed unique, he would do it in community with others, and he would invite each and every one of us to join him in the mission. By going down into the waters to be baptized, Jesus was essentially saying, “Come on in – the water’s fine!” Not because the water of Christ’s mission wasn’t cold and uncomfortable – in fact, Jesus would experience persecution and suffering and death – and he said that we as his followers should not be surprised if we experience the same. But Jesus invites us to join in his mission because if and when we follow in Christ’s footsteps and participate in Christ’s mission, then we too will experience the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to fulfill the purpose to which we have been called, and we too will experience the affirmation from God that we are God’s children, that God is indeed pleased with us, and that God is with us, no matter the trials we may face.

Now, baptism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I probably don’t have to tell you that baptism is a hotly contested theological practice, and even though pretty much every Christian tradition has a practice of baptism, it is done a lot of different ways in a lot of different churches.

But one aspect of baptism that every Christian tradition that I know of agrees on is that you cannot baptize yourself. You have to be baptized by someone else – in many cases a pastor or clergy, but even in churches where that’s not the case, you still have to be baptized by another Christian or member of the Church. And this is because baptism is not just about your indivitual relationship with God, but it’s also a reminder that when we are baptized we become a member of the Church – not just the local congregation, but a member of Christ’s Church – the global body of Christ – the family of God. As members of Christ’s Church we are children of God, and siblings with one another.

That’s why the worship series that we’re starting today refers to the Kingdom of God as a “Kin-dom” – because as members of Christ’s Church, we are “kin” – family – with one another. Christ is our head – our leader, our King – and we are family with one another.

And so it is not possible to baptize yourself – that’s just simply called bathing. Rather, you must be baptized by someone else. And it’s not about the goodness or righteousness of the person who baptizes you – but rather the person who pours or sprinkles or dunks you in the water is simply a representative of the Church, welcoming you into the family of God. 

And here too, we see Christ’s humility in being baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus was in fact much more powerful and holy and righteous than John. But even though – or perhaps because – Jesus is the Savior the world, God in the flesh, incarnated among us, he submitted himself to the process of baptism, identifying with us in our need for God and for community.

And so this morning, if you are not a member of Christ’s Church – if you’ve never been baptized, or repented of your sins or received the gift of God’s grace that is offered freely to all – we say, “Come on in, the water’s fine!” I know you may think we’re crazy. The Christian life may not look all that appealing to those on the outside, but there is grace, and mercy, and freedom, and love here for all who would put their faith and trust in Christ. Perhaps you want to just dip your toes in the water – and that’s fine! We welcome you to participate at whatever level you feel comfortable. And if and when you’re ready to jump all in, we’ll be happy to help usher you in.

For those who are already members of God’s family, but perhaps you’ve strayed away, or your enthusiasm for Christ has grown cold: this morning there is an opportunity for each of us to renew our commitment to following Christ. In a few minutes we’ll be participating in an abbreviated version of our annual covenant renewal service, and also receiving Communion. 

So come on in – the water’s fine! It may be uncomfortable at times, but here there is freedom and grace, and mercy, abundant and free. Let us go into the water, embracing the mission to which we have been called, remembering our need and dependence on God, and let’s invite others to join us here in the water! 

Amen!

The Savior is Born

December 24th, 2022, homily for Christmas Eve, by Pastor Galen

The power has been out at our house for the past couple of days. It started yesterday morning when a tree fell on the power lines. We couldn’t get any information about how long it was going to last, but we were heading out the door to go over to my brother’s house anyway, so we didn’t think too much about it. When the power still hadn’t come back on by the evening, we accepted my sister-in-law’s offer to stay at their house overnight, and my wife and I went back to our cold dark house to gather a few belongings for our family to stay the night. A relatively minor disruption in the midst of our wonderful holiday celebrations.

Some of you might have family staying over for the holidays – planned or unplanned. Sleeping on couches or sofas or air mattresses, we often crowd together to experience the joy of the holiday season. We enjoy being together, and we also enjoy going back home to sleep in our own beds when all of it is over.

But for Mary and Joseph, the timing of having to travel to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, could not have been worse. Mary was about to give birth to their first born child, and many people were on the roads traveling due to the taxation and census that were taking place, so I imagine that must not have been a very fun travel experience to say the least. 

And then, when they did finally get to Bethlehem and it was time for Mary to give birth to her baby Jesus, there was no room for them in the inn, or guest room, and so she laid her newborn child in a manger – a wooden piece of furniture typically used as a feeding trough for animals.

And so Jesus, the one whom the prophets had foretold, and whom the angel had said would be “great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32‭-‬33 NRSV) was born – not in a palace and laid in a golden cradle, but in the humblest of circumstances. Laid in a manger, to an ordinary couple, in an overcrowded town, temporarily displaced from their home.

And the good news of the Savior’s birth was announced – not by royal heralds blowing trumpets and proclaiming the news in every town and village square throughout the land (as we might expect when a new king was born) – but by an angel, appearing late at night to night watchmen – shepherds – keeping watch over their flocks of sheep at night.

Now, God could have chosen for Jesus to be born anywhere. Anywhere in the world, and at any time in history. The circumstances of the census and taxation and Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem, and the fact that Jesus was born at night and the only people who were awake were shepherds – all of these circumstances I believe could have been avoided. And yet, this was the time and this was the place that God chose for Jesus to be born. All of the prophecies that a Savior would be born were fulfilled in this moment, on this single ordinary night.

And the question is, why? Why wasn’t Jesus born in the palace, and laid in a golden cradle? Why wasn’t he born in a time when modern medicine would have made it a lot easier and safer for Mary to give birth? At the very least, why weren’t they able to give birth to their son in the comfort of their own hometown, surrounded by friends and family?

But in choosing to come and be born as a vulnerable little baby, and at such a vulnerable time and place in history, God demonstrated God’s care and concern for each of us, no matter our situation in life.

You see, many people back then (and still many people today) have this idea that God is angry at them, or that God is distant and cold and uncaring.

But in choosing for Jesus to be born in the humblest of circumstances, to an ordinary man and young woman, in an ordinary town, in less than ideal circumstances, God demonstrated God’s love and care and compassion for each and every one of us. No matter what it is we’re going through, no matter what we’re experiencing, God knows, God sees, and God understands.

God is not some far-off distant deity that we must seek to appease, but rather, God is close in proximity with us. In the overcrowded houses in the village of Bethlehem, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in the midst of our family dramas and societal divisions. No matter what we experience, God is with us.

This is the good news that we proclaim at Christmas. This is the good news that Mary pondered and held in her heart, and believed so strongly that she was willing to carry out her part in the Divine plan. This was the good news the shepherds heard and proclaimed. This was the good news that brought Magi from distant lands to worship the Christ child. This was the good news that some of the politically powerful and elite tried to stifle and blot out because of the threat that it posed to their own positions of authority. And yet is the good news that has continued on down to this day.

One of the favorite parts of this service is when we all light candles. We light the first candle from the Christ candle, and then we pass the flame down the row so that eventually the whole sanctuary is illuminated by the candles that we hold. This is a reminder to me that we each have a part to play in spreading Christ’s light to others.

And so this Christmas, may we be encouraged that no matter what we are going through, God is with us. Let us joyfully proclaim this good news: The Savior has been born!

Amen.

The Peaceable Kingdom

December 18th, 2022 homily on Isaiah 11:1-10 by Pastor Galen

Recently I came across this cartoon, which depicts two cats sitting at a bar. The Christmas lights hanging behind them suggest that it is the holiday season. The first cat, drinking out of a martini glass, turns to the other cat and says, “I always give them a few days to enjoy the tree before I destroy it.” The other cat, chugging from a beer mug, says “Me too. It’s the season of giving.”

This cartoon reminds me that, as much as we humans may love animals, and especially our pets – sometimes they can be difficult to live with. Our cat is usually pretty gracious with our Christmas tree. As long as we put the glass bulbs high up on the tree we’re usually OK. But when we buy a new couch or stuffed chair, our cat doesn’t even give us a day before she starts clawing the stuffing out of it. 

Now, the destruction of a Christmas tree or couch is a small price to pay for the love and affection we receive from our pets – most of the time. But overall, our relationships with animals can be quite fraught. Think of lions, and tigers, and bears. Or how about spiders and snakes and mice…and mosquitos? In many ways, we have a love-hate relationship with the animal kingdom.

While we as humans have sometimes been on the receiving end of the destruction wrought by animals, the reality is that we have committed more than our fair share of destruction as well – sometimes intentionally destroying animals or their habitats, other times making their world less habitable through our careless waste and pollution. 

The reality of our fraught relationship with animals makes Isaiah’s imagery here in chapter 11 all the more fascinating. Wolves living with lambs. Leopards lying down with goats. Cows and bears grazing together. Lions eating straw like oxen. Calves and lions living together, and a little child leading them! Isaiah tells us, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:9-10).

A Signal To the Peoples

Here the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the day when there will be peace on earth. Peace that saturates every single corner of the earth. Nations will not go to war against other nations, as we saw in Isaiah chapter 2, and even the wild animals will get along with domesticated farm animals. According to Isaiah, the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. And the “root of Jesse” will stand as a signal to the peoples.

The word “signal” here is a banner that was used in battle to show where the commanding officer was in the midst of the chaos of the battle. The signal, or banner, would have had the king or queen’s emblem, and the banner bearer would have led the way. An indication not only where their commanding officer could be found, but also a reminder of who they were fighting for – and where their loyalty lay. 

Isaiah says that the “root of Jesse” – a descendant from the line of Jesse, the father of King David, will stand as the signal – the banner – leading the way, pointing the nations – the whole world – in the way we should go. 

Earlier in chapter 11, Isaiah says that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The imagery here is of a plant or tree that has been cut down almost to the ground, and there’s just a stump left. It looks like the plant is dead, but then a tiny little green shoot grows out of it. 

Isaiah was speaking here to a people who had lost hope. Their kingdom had been cut down and it seemed that all that was left was a mere stump. The prophets had made it clear that this was a well-deserved punishment for the fact that as a people they had gone astray – practicing idolatry and turning their backs on God. And yet Isaiah provides a glimmer of hope, saying that God can and will bring new life out of what appears to be dead and lifeless. God will send a Messiah – an anointed one, a descendent of King David, from the line of Jesse. And this anointed one will raise up the banner, lead the way – and not just for the nation of Israel – but for people of all nations. Nations who had previously been at war would come together in peace, with God as their ruler.

Isaiah says of this Messiah, “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins” (Isaiah 11:2-5).

And then Isaiah launches into this image of even the wild animals living peaceably with the domesticated animals and a little child leading the way. And Isaiah says, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The Messiah’s reign will be glorious, and he will reign over a peaceable kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom

Now, when you hear the words “the peaceable kingdom,” you may be reminded of a painting of animals clustered around a small child. There’s one famous historical painter in particular – a Quaker minister and painter by the name of Edward Hicks who lived from 780 to 1849, who is well known for his paintings called “The Peaceable Kingdom.” I say  paintings, because he painted over 100 variations of this painting during the course of his lifetime! 62 of those paintings are still in existence today. Some of the most famous variations include the famous Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, in the background of the painting, signing a peace treaty with Native Americans. 

Hicks’ early paintings are hopeful and optimistic, and seem to look back on Penn’s peace treaty with the Native Americans as a hopeful indication that the world is getting better, that society is becoming more peaceful. These earlier paintings depict wild and domesticated animals lying down together in a playful style. Predators and prey living together in perfect harmony. In some, the tiny child is almost floating above the animals.

But historians have noted that there was a subtle change in the depiction of the animals over the years. As time went on, Hicks began to depict the wild animals with sharp teeth and even snarls. In this painting, for example, the cow seems to be cowering behind the wild animal, and the sheep and goats seem ready to run away at any moment. 

It seems that over the years the painter had begun to lose hope in humanity as he watched the barriers between peoples grow higher and stronger, and the animosity grow deeper and more violent. He was most likely discouraged by what was going on in his own denomination, where a major split occurred during the course of his lifetime – and this seems to be represented here in the tree that seems to have split down the middle.  

But what is fascinating about those later paintings is that the child, a Christ figure, is larger and more pronounced. Not only that, but rather than seeming to float above the animals, he seems to be actively restraining the wild animals, gripping the lion’s mane and the bear’s neck, holding them in place with his strength.

Rev. Derek Weber explains that throughout the course of his lifetime, “Hicks, though he began losing hope in the workings of the human community, began to cling even more tightly to Christ. In Christ, Hicks would put his hope.”

Peace is Only Possible Through Christ

Now, I love that the name of Hicks’ famous painting includes the word “peaceable,” because it sort of sounds like the word “possible.” But you and I know, as Hicks came to find out, that true peace is only possible through Jesus Christ.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to speak with a woman who had been actively involved in working for social justice for many decades – since the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. And I asked her, in her opinion, whether she had seen progress in the many years she had been working for change? In her opinion, was our society becoming more or less just? And she said the answer is both – simultaneously. Our society is becoming simultaneously more and less just at the same time. Yes, she had seen positive progress in some areas, and yet in other ways she was seeing our society becoming more and more divided. 

This is why Isaiah’s prophecy rings so true. It’s why Hicks’ paintings evolved over time. Because there has never yet been a peaceable kingdom, and true peace and justice and harmony will never be achieved by our own strength and will, but only through Christ. 

Fortunately there is hope in the midst of despair. Part of Isaiah’s prophecy, in fact, has already come true – that a shoot would come from the stump of Jesse, that a little child would lead the way. This is the Good News we proclaim at Christmas and all year long – that Christ has indeed come to usher in the Peaceable Kingdom. Christmas is not just a festive season or a reason to celebrate in the midst of a cold winter. Christmas reminds us that there is hope in the midst of despair. There is life even in the midst of death. 

There is still a lot of work to be done, and Advent reminds us that we still await the final fulfillment, when Christ will return to set the world to right. But even here and now we can experience hope, peace, joy, and love, with Jesus leading the way. When we love others as Christ loved us, when we welcome others – particularly those who are different from us – in Jesus’s name, and when we share about Emmanuel – God with us – we stand as a signal to the nations that there is a God among us and there is a way to know peace, and there is hope in the midst of despair; there is joy even in brokenness. 

We are called to stand as a signal. So let us raise up the banner! Let us point the way to Christ, that all may see and experience the peace and hope that he brings. Let us follow Christ wherever He may lead. And, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Amen!